COVID-19: In the Trenches
CHICAGO — The states of emergency, the declaration of a pandemic and the stay-at-home orders were unprecedented occurrences for everybody across the United States. But as “essential businesses,” convenience-store retailers had to make decisions quickly to maintain sales and keep employees safe. Here’s a look at how three retailers in some of the hardest-hit areas of the U.S. mobilized …
New York led the U.S. in confirmed COVID-19 cases for much of the spring. As of early May, the cases in the state topped 326,000.
And while New York City was a hot spot, rural areas were not immune to the pandemic. About 100 miles north in Shokan, N.Y., Olive’s Country Store and Cafe was grappling with an influx of visitors. The convenience store, owned by Alex Stier, sits near the Ashokan Reservoir and the Catskill Mountains. Because of this, Stier had to balance the needs of both his community and the tourists who were visiting the area.
“We want the tourists, but we don’t know where they have been or who they’ve been in contact with,” Stier told CSP in late March. “All of a sudden, instead of being a small pond, it becomes a huge ocean of people coming up.”
The store reacted by putting tables in front of its checkout to create distance between customers and the cashier, and limiting the sale of items such as toilet paper.
And Stier and his employees took care of the local community. The store’s 30-seat cafe had to close when the state prohibited on-premise dining. Stier used the space to make and assemble meals to feed the community as part of Project Resilience, an Ulster County initiative that aims to help vulnerable members of its community via a food distribution network.
As of April 6, Stier had provided more than 750 meals to the community, as well as meals for staff and volunteers at a local food pantry, medical offices and first responders.
Olive’s Country Store should be able to ride things out and come back stronger, Stier said. And he believes c-stores will come out of this pandemic with a better image, too. “Convenience stores have been elevated, with people realizing what is available there,” he said. “As they went to their big-box stores and weren’t able to get certain supplies, the small convenience stores ... were open, they were accessible.”
‘Everyone’s been incredible’
Ryan Razowsky, president of Deerfield, Ill.-based Rmarts LLC, used resources his store already had to help protect his employees against the coronavirus.
In addition to diligently cleaning and limiting the hours of some locations, Rmarts used bulletproof glass as a sneeze guard between cashiers and customers.
Illinois was one of the first states to enact a stay-at-home order in response to COVID-19. The state had more than 65,000 reported cases of COVID-19 as of early May. While tobacco and beer sales spiked at Rmarts, other categories, such as fuel, were down by about 50%, Razowsky told CSP in late March.
Despite the decline in sales, Razowsky said his team has shown its strength during the crisis, and that will stick once social distancing is over.
“We’ve just seen the true spirit of our organization shine in this crazy time, and everyone’s been incredible, so from that perspective, we’re going to come out of this much stronger,” he said.
The pandemic “has really shined a light on the fact that we’re all in this together and that we’re all here to serve our communities,” Razowsky said. “From the top down, we’re all trying to do what’s best for our stores, for our staff and for our customers, and that cohesiveness will carry on when things get back to normal.”
In April, as the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Ohio approached 3,000, Jeffry Armbruster wanted to make a statement to his employees about their importance.
Armbruster, owner of Armbruster Energy Stores, Grafton, Ohio, surprised his employees who came into work with a $2-per-hour bonus.
“I’m going to let them know how much we appreciate them coming to work,” Armbruster told CSP in late March. “I’m doing it as a bonus rather than wages because I want to separate what the coronavirus has created vs. just normal.”
The employees behind the counter are key to the business and what keeps customers coming back, Armbruster said. And if employees keep up the good work, Armbruster Energy Stores—and all c-stores—will thrive.
“As long as we can have good customer service and we don’t gouge people, we don’t change prices [and] we operate the business as normal as possible, we’re going to come out ahead,” Armbruster said.